The Saginaw Valley Lumber Strike paints an all-too familiar picture of American Capitalism: the rich minority wielding power over those who work underneath them, not realizing (or possibly caring) that manual laborers are human, first and foremost, and are the foundation on which their fortunes rest.
In the mid-late 19th century, men flocked from all over the country to get a piece of that lucrative “lumber mill” pie. In the 1860s, Henry Sage and John McGraw constructed two giant mills in the area. McGraw’s mill was claimed to be the “largest in the world”. In Bay City, the legacies of these men still stand (one can visit the Sage branch of the Bay City library, for example). But these men were not historic heroes, by any means. Although the lumber mills brought jobs and notoriety to the Bay City/Saginaw area, the mills were a terrible place to work.
The days were long, sometimes up to 12 hours, and the men worked six days a week. If injured on the job, they were often blamed, held responsible, or sometimes fired. After all, it was said, these men knew what kind of work they signed up for. Their pay was random, and not always real currency. Many times, they were paid in vouchers to the company store, limiting their spending power in the actual economy after committing so many back-breaking hours to these mills. In the spring of 1885, lumber prices fell, and workers took a crippling 25% dip in their pay. A law had been put into place to ensure a 10-hour maximum work day. But that law wasn’t to go into effect until September, when most of the logging season was over.
The strike began innocently enough in July, when one of the mills closed for maintenance. One man shouted to others in the streets a call for a 10-hour work day. This inspired other men to take part in the chanting, which turned to marching, protesting, and soon there were close to 400 workers in the streets on that first day, pushing for change for mill workers, and solidarity from other industries as well.
By July 8, the strike had doubled in size. The crowd was armed. It was no longer only mill workers involved, and, as riots often do, things began to get violent as police and militiamen were called in to combat the angry men. They demanded a 10-hour workday, regular pay, and for their jobs to be reinstated. But this was never really accomplished. The lumber barons refused to succumb, and by the end of the summer, much of the lumber business in the area was on the decline.
At the end of the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution in America had taken many underpaid, overworked men as expendable cogs in its machine–humans were bits of machinery to be used for the sake of profit. They weren’t people with needs or families. Businesses exist to create profit, but at what cost? How comfortable can one be with the profit made on the backs of suffering people? We remember the lumber barons with our pretty green signs on the side of the roads, but history wipes clean their crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, for the working poor in America today, the industries may have changed, but the attitudes toward their labor in many ways have not.